This is a follow-up piece to the article “Seven Women in IT Chosen to get Hands-on Experience Building, Managing Super-fast Network at SC16”
Now in its second year, Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) is a collaboration between the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER). Although women have been members of SCinet since the earliest days, WINS was launched to further expand the diversity of the SCinet volunteer staff and provide professional development opportunities to highly qualified women in the field of networking.
This follow-up article looks at how the personal experiences of several people and trends related to women in the IT networking industry led to the creation of WINS.
For Wendy Huntoon, the president and CEO of the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), there was never any doubt that she would become an engineer. Her mother was a communications engineer and she married an electrical engineer who was the son of an electrical engineer.
“It never dawned on me not to go into the field,” said Huntoon. “But for many women, it’s important to provide exposure to the field and to help them understand that engineering can lead to a long, rewarding career.”
And, in fact, her daughter is now working toward her Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
But that’s not the case elsewhere. As Huntoon rose through the ranks at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Internet2 and NationalLambdaRail, she could easily count the number of women in the room at various meetings. “There are a lot more opportunities now, so I was surprised the numbers weren’t increasing.”
Marla Meehl, who manages the network for the University Corporations for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, had the same experience.
“Our concern is that there is not a big enough pool of students to meet future demands,” said Meehl. “We need to attract more students, expose them to the many options and persuade them to go into the field—and stay in it.”
When she was asked by Internet2 to co-chair its Gender Diversity Initiative with her longtime colleague Laurie Burns McRobbie,, Meehl wasn’t very optimistic but took the plunge anyway.
“I read more about the problem and was shocked,” Meehl said. “I didn’t know how bad it was. The biggest statistic for me was the declining number of women going into computer science – the number was plummeting. But that was not the case in math and science and engineering.”
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 2014, but only 17 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences. That number drops to 15 percent at major universities. However, in 1985, women earned 37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science. One positive note is that the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science increased 21 percent between 2000 and 2015.
With fewer women in the field, those who do go in that direction have fewer mentors. The result is not just a gender imbalance, Meehl said, but also workplace issues from work expectations to problem-solving skills are out of balance.
A couple of years ago at a meeting of the Quilt, the national coalition of advanced regional networks for research and education, representing 36 networks across the country. ESnet’s Jason Zurawski, who had previously worked with Huntoon, mentioned the small number of women participating in SCinet, the team that builds the super-fast network supporting the annual SC conference.
Huntoon, who was a member of the first SCinet team in 1991 and had supported SCinet when SC was held in Pittsburgh in 1996 and 2004, knew first-hand what a great opportunity the all-volunteer project offered. They talked with Meehl, who was able to obtain supplemental funding from the National Science Foundation through her grant, and held the first WINS program at SC15 in Austin.
Mary Hester, a member of the Science Engagement Team at Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and member of the WINS management team, has first-hand experience in the value of hands-on networking. Halfway to earning her bachelor’s degree in English, she switched universities to major in physics. She then got a job helping ESnet understand the needs of scientists, but felt she needed to have a basic understanding of the technology, too.
“It’s critical to understand the technology when you’re talking to scientists and the only way to do that is jump in feet first, then paddle like crazy,” Hester said. “I got my foot in the door with SCinet by doing communications and worked my way into the operations teams. My first year, I participated on multiple teams to build my reputation and at SC16 I’ll be full-time on the Edge Networking team, setting up the connectivity for the conference show floor, tutorials, workshops and meetings.”
For SC16, the Department of Energy provided funding for two women, which allowed WINS to accept seven women this year. The management team is now looking for ways to make the program sustainable over the long term.
“In addition to providing opportunities for these women, we are also looking to raise awareness about the overall issue,” said Meehl. “That’s something everyone can participate in by thinking more about who you mentor, how you encourage others and taking time to work with them.”